Pressure on Conference Threatens Free Speech

By Cecilie Surasky

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council interfered in an academic conference last week called "Litigating Palestine: Can Courts Secure Palestinian Rights?" at the UC Hastings College of the Law.

They pressured the Hastings Board of Directors into an emergency meeting in which the board decided to "take all steps necessary to remove the UC Hastings name and brand" from the conference. Frank Wu, dean and chancellor, was barred from giving a welcoming talk; a major foundation withdrew funding.

Professors dislike academic intimidation, and this case is no exception. Nearly all of UC Hastings’ tenured professors signed a letter warning that the board’s capitulation to outside pressure on academic freedom risked "great damage to Hastings’ reputation."

The elected student government, joined by 30 student organizations, charged the board with "stifling their academic freedom" and "prospectively chilling free speech" at future academic conferences.

They are right, of course. But there are bigger issues at stake.

Why were these mainstream Jewish organizations so troubled by the academic pursuit of legal approaches to securing Palestinian rights and freedom?

Perhaps for the first time in U.S. history, there is an aggressive challenge to a one-sided narrative that covers up or justifies ongoing Israeli repression of Palestinians, and U.S. culpability for that repression. The center of that challenge is on campuses, which is why those who have traditionally adopted knee-jerk defenses of Israeli policies are attempting to stigmatize or shut down alternative viewpoints.

In this case, the conference in question was about the legal rights of Palestinians. Its lead convener was former San Francisco public defender and Hastings law professor George Bisharat. He was joined by numerous legal scholars and human rights lawyers, including many Jews, from the United States and Israel.

Yet JCRC head Doug Kahn dubbed the conference, which was focused on nonviolent legal strategies to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, "anti-Israel." He’s right, however, only if you regard Thurgood Marshall’s efforts on behalf of the civil rights movement to be "anti-American."

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, indicated in a letter of complaint that UC Hastings could lose federal funds if the conference proceeded.

Rossman-Benjamin, who has long tried to silence speakers and academics who are critical of Israeli policies, many of them Jewish and even Israeli, recently filed a complaint about alleged anti-Semitism at UC Santa Cruz focusing on educational programming related to Israel and Palestine. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the target of a multiyear campaign to criminalize pro-Palestinian student activism led by the Zionist Organization of America, began an investigation. Ominously, such moves suggest that legitimate criticism of Israeli policy is being conflated with anti-Semitism.

If this is allowed to happen, then serious debate on Israel’s illegal actions in the Palestinian territories will be shut down. That is a threat not just to academic freedom but to American free speech and our ability to help secure the rights of everyone in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

– Cecilie Surasky is the deputy director of the Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, a national grassroots organization dedicated to a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on democracy, human rights and international law. (This article was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle – Republished in with permission from the author.)

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